The Future Imperfect
I am waiting out a spring storm, pulled over to the side of the highway in my old Volvo, sending an email to one friend while calling another to tell him I’ll be late. The audiobook version of Anne McCaffrey’s The Ship Who Searched is playing on my Kindle, which I’ve hooked into the car stereo. As I sit here, surrounded by technologies that did not exist when I was born—cell phones, e-readers, email—it’s impossible not to notice that I’m living in a world that contains more technological wonders than McCaffrey had imagined. The protagonists in the story would have been much helped, for instance, by a secure communications channel and a GPS system, both of which I have in my battered old car. But most of all, the heroine of this book would have been helped by a future shaped by the actions of today’s disability activists. Because, at its heart, this series of books tells the story of the enslavement of extremely promising children who have the bad luck to be born—or in this one case alone, become—disabled.
The basic plot device behind these stories is horrific enough that I can’t paraphrase McCaffrey’s own words without coloring them, so I will let her speak for herself. The first book in the series, The Ship Who Sang, begins:
She was born a thing and as such would have been condemned if she failed to pass the encephalograph test required of all newborn babies. There was always the possibility that though the limbs were twisted, the mind was not; that although the ears would hear only dimly, the eyes see vaguely, the mind behind them was receptive and alert.
The electro-encephalogram was entirely favorable, unexpectedly so, and the news was brought to the waiting, grieving parents. There was a final, harsh decision; to give their child euthanasia or to permit it to become an encapsulated ‘brain…’ (The Ship Who Sang)
In this series, those children who are deemed worthy are turned into productized, commodified “shell people;” brains who manage the complex tasks associated with running hospitals, space stations, and even piloting starships. They can, if they are lucky, eventually earn enough to buy their own freedom but, until they do, their “bodies” are owned by the company which funded their development and implantation.
In other words, in McCaffrey’s world, disability is so depersonalizing that the very promising are rewarded with slavery and disembodiment; those who don’t pass the test for these rewards are put to death.
The friend I am going to visit is named Larry. If I ever get out of this storm, I should arrive shortly after his nighttime aide has wheeled him into his bedroom and, using an elaborate webbed harness that attaches to an electric lift, helped him get from chair to bed. She’ll lay out the things he needs for the night: two telephone handsets, in case one goes dead, a bottle of water, the book he’s reading, the TV remote, and an emergency call button that will summon an ambulance. I have just enough time to hear the entire book read, and if I listen to it the whole way I will have worked myself up into a heady righteous indignation by the time I go to sit by his bedside and have an evening drink. He’ll try to calm me down; Larry doesn’t have my stomach for political debate. He’ll tell me that it’s only a story. I will tell him the stories we tell about our futures become our futures, point out that my phone looks a lot like an old Star Trek communicator, point out that the special mattress he sleeps on was developed by the space program. Over very old Scotch, we’ll agree to disagree.
A truck screamed by, the brakes on fire, just a few seconds ago and now it sits jackknifed across the highway several yards away. Hailstones hit the car so hard that, in a few places, they scratch the paint. What would it be like if that hard, metal shell were my body? And what if I did not own that body, could not decide where it went or what it did?
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